Hold up before you snap a photo of that pho: Your latest food-inspired Instagram post might be a little bit racist.
That’s according to Celeste Noche, a professional food photographer in Portland, Oregon, featured on an episode of The Racist Sandwich podcast, which explores food through the lens of race, gender, and class. She’s identified a troubling pattern in both foodie’s Instagram posts and gourmet magazine spreads: When people don’t take the time to educate themselves about the cultures associated with a given food, they wind up perpetuating cultural stereotypes and misrepresentations.
“We’ve never quite escaped the idea that Western is the status quo, so anything other is viewed as, well, ‘other,'” Noche says. “This leads people to exotify and overcompensate in styling dishes that aren’t normal to them, because they don’t understand or haven’t experienced how these dishes can exist on their own.”
The most common pitfalls, she says, often occur when photographers or food stylists use props without doing any research beforehand.
“Andrew Zimmern has a recipe for Filipino short ribs on his website styled next to chopsticks,” she says. “At first glance this seems okay, except Filipinos traditionally eat with spoons and forks, or just their hands, so it feels like he’s incorrectly generalizing all Asians.”
Chopsticks photographed sticking out of a bowl or plunged vertically into a bowl of rice are another common error, Noche says, since this “can be seen as rude and symbolic of death in different Asian cultures.”
Big-name publications also make these mistakes. Noche points to the backlash the magazine Bon Appétit faced after publishing a story originally posted under the headline: “PSA: This is how you should be eating pho.”
The magazine’s editor in chief wound up issuing an apology for the story, which featured a white chef from Philadelphia offering an authoritative explanation on how to eat pho, which was described as a “food trend.” Amid the backlash, a Vietnamese chef wrote for NPR that Bon Appétit was treating pho as “merely a fashionable food,” ignoring its long history in Vietnamese culture.
“The artists who write, style, and photograph recipes often underestimate the authority they grant themselves in portraying food that isn’t theirs,” Noche says. In another high-profile example, the magazine Saveur last year had two white men write and photograph a piece on Filipino chef Dale Talde.
“I was immediately skeptical upon seeing two dishes styled on a mahjong table (to me, this is the equivalent of styling food on a Monopoly board),” she says. “The mahjong table was later explained [after the backlash] to be an homage to Talde’s father at his restaurant, but without context it looks like two white dudes are styling Filipino food on top of a Chinese game.”
Perhaps the most obvious problem is the way that non-Western foods are accessorized, Noche says. Aside from her mahjong example, amateur Instagram photos are rife with posts of Asian cuisine often accompanied by cultural accoutrements. Very often dishes paired with utensils that aren’t even used in that particular culture (people in Thailand use forks, not chopsticks). Little peppers and bowls of spices orbiting the main dish look pretty, but reinforce fetishized ideas about how people in other cultures eat. (Most dinner tables aren’t strewn with random vegetables and little bowls of turmeric.)
A simple Google search sheds some light on just how widespread some of these photographic practices are, especially with Asian cuisine. Check out this simple Google search for images of pho, most of them accompanied by chopsticks as decoration:
Meanwhile, a search for spaghetti shows the dish typically stands on its own, with no need to roll out a stereotypical red-and-white checked table cloth, an Italian flag, or other frills:
The takeaway is that food photography—like all photography—conveys more than what’s simply in the photo. It offers insight into how people interpret the world, what they understand (or misunderstand) about it, and their place within it. Eating Thai food might be an afternoon dalliance for one person, but for another it’s a direct link to their cultural heritage—which is all the more reason to be curious and thoughtful about the food we eat.
To that end, Noche recommends that amateur photographers take steps to educate themselves about the dishes they sample. “If something’s unfamiliar to you, talk to a person from that culture to learn more about it,” she says. “Don’t call something gross or weird because it’s unusual to you. Don’t treat other cultures as if they exist for you to explore (i.e. when you’re traveling, ask for permission before you take photos of that adorable grandma making noodles by hand).”
The point isn’t that we should eschew photos of the food we enjoy—only that we should think before we pick up our cameras. “Use this medium to help share other people’s stories,” Noche says, “instead of forcing them to fit your own.”